The Tallest Redwoods in The Great Park

The tallest redwoods in the Santa Cruz Mountains are more than 300 feet tall—and you'll find them all in the Great Park. Our guide to the loftiest living giants.

by Brendan Bane

Oct. 7, 2014—Getting big is hard. For living things to evolve largeness, they need to overcome several obstacles. First, they need to garner enough materials to build their massive selves. And once they’ve built that large body, they need enough food to fuel it; African elephants eat up to 600 pounds of food a day. Gravity is another issue; giraffes, for example, need large hearts and heightened blood pressure to pump blood all the way up their long necks. Considering all the big trouble big things must overcome, it’s amazing that one organism, the coast redwood, evolved into the world’s tallest being while spending its entire life standing still.

The Santa Cruz Mountains are home to thousands of coast redwoods, many of which are over 1,000 years old and well over 250 feet tall. But where are the tallest trees? While we can’t disclose exact locations, we’ve compiled a list of (approximately) where within the Sempervirens Fund’s prospective 195-square-mile Great Park you can find some true giants.

But heed our word of caution: to become tall, these trees require an undisturbed ecosystem. To avoid disrupting their growth, we encourage you, if you do find an especially tall tree, to refrain from telling others and bringing foot traffic.

How do tall trees get so tall?

To understand how tall trees get tall, we’ve got to understand where their tissues come from. Where do trees get the ingredients to make themselves up? They pull them out of thin air! Trees (and all woody plants) grow by taking carbon from the atmosphere and using it to build the three compounds that compose wood: cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin. From there, getting tall requires water, and lots of it.

A 2014 study conducted through Colorado State University found that many of the tallest trees in over 7,000 acres of the Santa Cruz Mountains grow near perennial water sources. “For the coast redwood and other tree species as well,” states the study, “perennial water promotes maximum growth because it allows for maximum water intake–something vital for tree height.” The study’s two authors, undergraduate researcher Zane Moore and wildlife biologist Steven Singer, broke a record for discovering especially tall trees when they shared their findings. We’ll refer to their study throughout this article.

Water doesn’t only fuel growth, it also protects trees from wildfire damage. Tissues toward the top of the tree aren’t quite thick enough to withstand extreme heat. Upper sections can die if they become too hot. Newer growth has to overtake that dead tissue, and that costs growing time.

Big plants also need good roots. Redwood roots are unique; they lack root hairs, the microscopic appendages that many plants use to collect water and nutrients from soil. Instead of root hairs, redwoods rely on microorganisms in the soil to provide nutrients, facilitate water uptake and protect them from diseases. A diverse group of microfauna means a strong, tall tree.

How do you measure tall trees?

The original way to measure a tall tree was to climb it and throw down a long rope. But scrambling up a 300-foot tree can get tricky. Thankfully, foresters now have a much simpler method; they shoot the trees with lasers.

LIDAR technology entails shooting a beam of light at something and measuring the light that bounces back to deduce the thing’s distance. Foresters use LIDAR to measure the height of many trees simultaneously by flying overhead, beaming light into the canopy below and measuring the distance between two returned pulses: the one that hits the forest floor and the one that hits the top of the trees.

And now …

Where are the tallest redwood trees in the Santa Cruz Mountains' Great Park?

Big Basin Redwoods State Park
Big Basin has the tallest trees in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Ten of the 14 exceptionally tall (above 295 feet) trees Moore and Singer found in their survey were hiding in this largest contiguous stand of redwood growth south of San Francisco. The tallest of the bunch, which you can find along the Meteor Trail, measured over 328 feet high! Yes, if you were to lay that tree down, it would cover the length of a football field, including (almost) one end zone.

Where can you see the rest of them? We can’t say outright, but you may have a chance of finding certain exceptionally tall trees in a lesser known area called 100 Acre Grove. Don’t look on the maps—you won’t find it. Don’t ask staff members where it is—many of them won’t know. Ask park interpreter Susan Blake, though, and she’ll tell you to hike two miles up North Escape Road. “That’s a place I love to go to really feel the presence of tall trees,” said Blake, who described the area as lush and fern-bestrewn. “It’s a very dinosaur-feeling place.”

Another giant, Mother of the Forest, stands near park headquarters on the Redwood Loop Trail. At 329 feet, Mother of the Forest was once the tallest tree in Big Basin. But she lost her top portion in a storm a few years back. She’s now 293 feet tall and still going strong. Find two other towering trees, Father of the Forest (251 feet) and Santa Clara (225 feet), on the same trail. Father of the Forest may not be the tallest, but he certainly is the widest redwood in the Santa Cruz Mountains at 18.47 feet across.

Portola Redwoods State Park
Portola comes in second place, with the remaining four of Moore and Singer’s 14 exceptionally tall trees. The tallest, Old Tree, measures just above 305 feet and is over 1,200 years old. Find Old Tree by exploring the aptly named “Old Tree Trail,” an easy half-mile jaunt from the park’s campgrounds. Old Tree’s 301-foot contender lives in Peter’s Creek Grove, the third largest old growth redwood grove in the Santa Cruz Mountains. But getting there isn’t easy. You’ll have to hike 13 miles to see those 300-foot, 1,000-year old giants.

Pescadero Creek County Park
You’ll find Pescadero’s tallest tree hiding somewhere along a quaint trail leading to Heritage Grove. What the area lacks in size, it makes up for by sporting lush greenery, a babbling brook and a 291-foot coast redwood. The exact location of the tree is unknown, but with the modest length of the trail (about a mile), you’re likely to come across it.

Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park
Henry Cowell is known for its old growth redwoods; some of the trees here are 1400 to 1800 years old. The park’s tallest stands 285 feet tall and 16 feet wide. Try finding it on the Redwood Grove Loop Trail, an easy 0.8-mile hike where centuries-old redwoods grow. Or if you’re in the mood for a different persuasion of tall tree, explore the Giant Sycamore Grove to behold the largest sycamores in California.

To find mammoth trees in Henry Cowell, though, you don’t have to walk much farther than the parking lot. Their second-tallest tree, a 279-foot mammoth, sits by the back door of the visitor center.

Butano State Park
Butano comes in a respectable fifth, with confirmed 250-foot redwoods peppered throughout the property. “When you get in the range of 250 feet,” says Singer, “those trees are fewer and farther in between. But Butano has some 250-footers.” He recommends taking the old fire road toward the upstream end of Little Butano Canyon. Take the Ray Linder Memorial Trail from the fire road for a short loop through one of the park’s few patches of old growth.

San Vicente Redwoods
San Vicente is a special case. The park’s planned access is still in draft form, and will remain as such until the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County finishes reviewing surveys and comments from the public on Oct. 10. The final plan should be available toward the end of this year, with hopes that the park will open to visitors as early as fall 2015. Until then, the park is off limits and we discourage tall tree explorers from trying to find any record breakers.

But that hasn’t stopped professional forester Nadia Hamey from surveying San Vicente for its tallest trees. She used LIDAR to scan the area and found over 30 trees in excess of 220 feet. “They get taller with their feet in the water,” says Hamey, who confirms that many of the tall trees grow in damp soil. How tall they actually are remains a mystery. But perhaps as San Vicente becomes accessible, we’ll have to name some new giants.

Año Nuevo State Park
While Año Nuevo is well known for its giant elephant seals, you won’t find many giant redwoods here. Moore’s study claims that exceptionally tall trees don’t grow near the coast. But you can find the park’s tallest trees along the Whitehouse Creek Trail, says state park interpreter Mike Merritt. Follow the steep climb to find a second-growth redwood forest before you hit the two sweeping overlooks. “At the top,” says Merritt, “hikers can see for miles up and down the Pacific Coast.”

Wilder Ranch State Park
The tallest trees of Wilder Ranch are probably growing in Peasley Gulch Ravine, traversed by Old Cabin Trail. “There isn’t any old growth here,” says park ranger Jamie Stamps, “but visitors can find a nice shaded area along Old Cabin Trail, which has some pretty tall trees.” They’re big around, too—big enough to fool many visitors into thinking they’re old growth. Some of the more heavily shaded areas are difficult to access, but the trail affords sharp transitions between grassy rolling hills, shady oak and redwood forest.

Castle Rock State Park
Castle Rock surely has 200-foot redwoods, but whether or not it has any exceptionally tall tress seems unlikely. “With Castle Rock being situated where it is,” said Singer, “you’re not going to find very many tall trees. There just isn’t enough old growth.”

About The Great Park and Sempervirens Fund

The Great Park has no entrance kiosk or employee uniform, but it's as real as can be. Writer L. Clark Tate puts it this way: "The Great Park is Sempervirens Fund’s bid to achieve its ultimate goal to preserve a fully functioning redwood ecosystem in perpetuity ... it will link preexisting parks (such as Big Basin, Wilder Ranch and the 8,500-acre San Vicente Redwoods) in a mixed-use matrix including wild lands, recreation areas and working forests."

Intrigued? Find out more about the Great Park.

About Sempervirens Fund
The club now known as Sempervirens Fund was founded in 1900 to protect the old-growth trees of Big Basin—what eventually became the first park in the California state park system. Fueled by the passion of individuals as well as foundations and green-minded corporations, Sempervirens Fund has leveraged tens of millions of dollars to protect redwood forest in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Read more about Sempervirens Fund here.

Hike The Great Park: Ocean View Summit
San Vicente Redwoods Access Plan: Round 1

Home page photo by Allie Caulfield on Wikimedia Commons.